Roses

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by Shane McGregor

Shane McGregor played quarterback for Penn State from 2008-2012 and graduated with degrees in journalism and English. An active member of the university community, McGregor danced in THON in 2012. He currently coaches and teaches in his hometown of Ebensburg, PA.

Twenty-nine rotations of the earth ago, I enjoyed the good fortune of dropping over a Benjamin for a seat that I stood, fidgeted, nervously swayed, joyously jumped, and—ultimately—triumphantly stood in front of over the course of three hours on a Saturday night inside a stadium they call The House That Peyton Built. The irony of paying for a seat one never actually sits in is never a cause for frustration, though, because the price you pay to be in that stadium isn’t for a seat, but a sight—a chance to observe, to bear witness, to view with your own two ocular devices a work of performance art not tainted by the once-removed artificiality of a screen. Because as the old Central Pennsylvanian adage says—to watch Penn State Football on television is much different than being in the ring.

The fact of the Penn State Football matter is that this year those young bulls in blue & white have been much more than just a football team playing football games — they’ve been a cast of intriguing characters, actors in this wildly unscripted play, exercising their ability to produce some of the most dramatic performance art in the entire college football universe. And while that sentence may seem like quite the flirtatious dance with hyperbole, I defend my claims with experience, by saying that for the last two solid decades of my life — starting with the voracious enthusiasm of an athletic 8-year-old all the way to that Big Ten title game four weeks ago — the single recreational activity to which I’ve devoted the most cumulative time, attention, effort, and energy has been the observation of Penn State Football.

The observing has occurred in many different forms and facets. Growing up the son of an alum in a small town an hour west of State College, I revered LaVar Arrington as a near demigod, played backyard football with Curtis Enis’ #39 on my back, and looked forward intently to the pilgrimage my family would take up to the cathedral of Beaver Stadium one special weekend each fall, to take in the whole Penn State Football phenomenon in the flesh. My eyes drifted some as I went through middle and high school, as my college football fandom widened to include the Tigers down on the Bayou (cousin of mine punted at LSU from ’03-’07) and — GASP! — even that team some call the Men of Troy (blame Bruce Feldman’s August 2004 ESPN the Magazine article on Matt Leinart for that one).

But everything really changed when, however improbably, I was offered a chance to live out my childhood dream of playing big-time Division-I college football by the exact school I had been already observing for so long.

So the last time the Nittany Lions made it to Pasadena, way back at the end of the 2008 season, I enjoyed the good fortune of having a pretty good seat in the stadium. More specifically, the grey metal bench firmly planted in the middle of the Penn State sideline, upon which I stood, fidgeted, nervously swayed, joyously jumped, etc. for a good portion of the game. I wore a pristine white shirt with a navy blue V-neck collar, and was one of a little over 200 people in the stadium who watched the game wearing shoulder pads and cleated shoes. It was the final game of my first year as a college football player, my very first bowl trip as a player, and the first of what I thought could quite possibly be several Rose Bowl trips in my career.

If you’re reading these words, it probably won’t be a spoiler when I tell you that that day didn’t exactly end up as I’d hoped.  USC 38, Penn State 24. A 14-point defeat made even worse by the lingering pangs of several oh-so-closes and what-could-have-beens. So it was with an agitated mind and a disappointed heart that I walked out of the stadium that night, trekking across the parking lot plain that separated the stadium gate from our parked team buses. About halfway across the lots, something told me to stop. I wheeled around to look back at the stadium, unsheathing my trusty digital camera from my pocket, and snapped one final photo of the stadium and its iconic neon-lit “ROSE BOWL” sign. And calmly, resolutely, I spoke a whisper out into the still California night.

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “I’ll be back.”

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The truth is that College Football bowl games have always been the apple of my athletic eyes, going way back to even my youngster years. CapitolOne used to run commercials that proclaimed “Bowl Week”— the week from December 26 to January 2 — to be “the most wonderful week of the year,” complete with a football-lyricized jingle to the tune of the holiday song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Young Shane, in all his youthful exuberance, heartily agreed with this, and considered the culmination of Bowl Week — New Year’s Day, with its day-long slate of big-time bowl games — to be damn near a second Christmas. After all, he can bring you many cool gifts, but even Jolly Old Saint Nick can’t bring you two marquee Big Ten-SEC matchups before lunch and the Granddaddy of ‘Em All kicking off right around dinnertime.

But out of all the fine bowls games out there, the crown jewel has to be the Rose. Back in the pre-Playoff days, when it was just the BCS National Championship and the rest of the bowls, I used to make the argument that the real climax of the season was actually not the game between #1 and #2 at an entirely-too-late kickoff time on a Monday night anywhere from eight to eleven days into January. No, I would argue that the season’s college football narrative high-pointed at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the 1st day of the New Year, in that old bowled stadium tucked into the mountains of southern California. It’s historic, iconic, beautiful, glamorous, and legendary. It’s SoCal, the City of Angels, the lights of Sunset, the Hollywood Hills. As I heard one stoked Penn Stater say it once, “Dude, it’s L.A. It’s. The. Rose. Bowl.”

So you can imagine my excitement when, no less than one calendar year after I was busy spending my Christmas Break of 2007 averaging 7 points a game for my small-town high school basketball team, I was set and ready to start Christmas Break of 2008 by boarding a plane at snowy Pittsburgh International — next stop: Los Angeles.

*  *  *

The first thing I noticed was the light. I know Paris already has the City of Lights moniker firmly under its ownership, but Los Angeles could certainly give them a run for that money. The nighttime swirling descent into LAX was just lights after lights after gridded row of lights, broken up by the inky black of the bordering Pacific or the pockets of terrain too steep or too protected to plant a mansion on.

I rolled over in my bed at our team hotel — the Loews Beach Hotel in Santa Monica — that first morning, turned the TV on, and immediately thought I had slept half the day away. NFL games aren’t usually on at 10 in the morning back home. Further evidence that Toto was no longer in Kansas came in the form of the audible gasp I let out once I stepped out onto Ocean Avenue a short while later and stopped, wide-eyed, and stared at the sight of the white-peaked majesties rising up over the eastern horizon. I composed myself quickly, and then strolled the several blocks to attend Sunday mass at the same Santa Monica church where Tom Brady & Gisele had their wedding ceremony.

We spent our first week — and I say “first” week because there were indeed actually two; while most teams typically do a one-week bowl trip, the Penn State tradition under Joe was to go early and spend a full two weeks at the bowl site, usually switching hotels after the first — at the beachside Loews right there next to the famed Santa Monica Pier, making the daily excursion down the Santa Monica Freeway and all the way to Carson City and the Home Depot (now StubHub) Center sports complex, which served as our practice facility and on-field home away from home. These were daily driving tours of the metropolis that, thanks to our helpful and miracle-working California Highway Patrol motorcycle escorts, occurred almost entirely devoid of traffic.

Besides traversing L.A. sans gridlock, perhaps the weirdest thing about a two-week-long bowl trip is that, if you count it on backward from January 1, it fully encompasses the day of, before, and directly after December 25 — meaning, for the first time in my 18 years on earth, I wouldn’t be home and with my family on Christmas.

We would have a team-wide Christmas party on Christmas Eve and also Christmas Day fully off from practice and football activities, but there’s just something about a home-cooked meal shared with family that even all the fun in La La Land can’t fully replace. But thankfully, my roommate for the trip was Steve Joseph, a defensive back and fellow walk-on from Lackawanna Trail High School outside of Scranton, and it just so happened that one of Steve’s uncles lived out in Los Angeles at the time. So on Christmas Day he invited Steve and me over to his house, where, in t-shirt weather and with the hometown Lakers on the television in the other room, we ate his uncle’s family’s version of a traditional California Christmas meal: tortillas, fajitas, beans, vegetables, desserts, the works — all homemade and incredible.

After the holiday, we packed up our stuff and said goodbye to the beach, moving a couple miles inland to the Century Plaza in Century City, right next to Beverly Hills, where we stayed for the next week. Now that it was officially game week, we had some sort of team activity after practice almost every day, whether it was the trip to Disney Land (best part: the now-deceased Tower of Terror), the “Beef Bowl” night at Lawry’s Prime Rib Restaurant (d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s), or Media Day at one of the hotels downtown (sadly, no interview requests made for the scout team quarterback).

Which, in my extremely biased opinion, was a great opportunity those media folks covering the game 100% missed out on. You see, the Scout Team QB has a particularly unique point of observation, as he quite literally looks over at the starting defense from across the line of scrimmage each day in practice. And on that ’08 defense, we had some studs: future 11th overall pick in the NFL Draft Aaron Maybin, current 7-year NFL vet Jared Odrick, 4-time first-team NFL All-Pro Navorro Bowman, not to mention current Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker and captain Sean Lee, who had missed the entire season due to a knee injury. As part of our three-headed freshman scout-team quarterback monster led Matt McGloin (now with the Oakland Raiders) and joined by John Kelly, it was our job to replicate as best we could the schemes, techniques, and plays of the USC offense against our own defense. To, as it’s said in the football vernacular, “give a good look” in order to familiarize them as much as possible to the things they’d be encountering on gameday.

Speaking of gameday, as I look back now, with a full 8 years of distance and perspective between Gameday ’09 and this current one, I still marvel at the matchup we had back then. USC and Penn State, two of the most storied programs in all of college football. The head coaches? Joe Paterno, of course, and none other than Pete Carroll, who had established an absolute Trojan dynasty atop the Pac-10 and would leave for the head coaching position he currently holds with the Seattle Seahawks after the following USC season. An absolutely loaded Trojan roster, filled with names like Clay Matthews and Mark Sanchez, probably should’ve been playing for a National Championship that year, but a terrible Week 3 loss to heavy-underdog Oregon State — the same Oregon State team that we Nittany Lions happened to beat by 31 points just one week before — kept them out of the race.

But the game— my goodness, the game was just a feast for the senses. The colors popped — the white worn by Nittany nation and the scarlet of the Trojan faithful forming a brilliantly contrasting fault line that almost directly bisected the north end zone, like oil and water agreeing share a space but simply refusing to mix. The vibrant kelly green of the grass, painted in some spots to look extra sharp on TV, and the softest hues of cloudless blue overhead. The brassy sounds of the USC band, whose first 10 notes of their fight song are still singed firmly into my memory to this day. The heat of the 1-o’clock-hour sunshine in pregame warmups, giving way to temperate weatherless feel of dusk and finally, the gentle coolness of a clear California winter night.

And the memories — it was like walking through some sort of hallowed college football ground. Throughout it all I kept a cool exterior, but the college football nerd inside of me geeking out when I walked out of the tunnel and onto the field for the field time. This is Vince Young’s end zone — the one where he Superman dove to score a crucial 4th quarter touchdown just inside one front pylon, and then scrambled his way to score the untouched game-winner just inside the one on the other side. And this is Andre Johnson’s sideline, the one he so cooly sauntered down as he scored his seemingly millionth touchdown of the National Championship game that set Nebraska back ten years. And way down there, that’s the corner where Charles Woodson made the leaping interception against Ryan Leaf and Washington State, where he somehow found a way to hold on to that ball despite the copious amounts straight sauce that dude was dripping with the tinted visor and spatted black cleats. And there, yes, peeking up above the stadium rim, are the beloved San Gabriel peaks that become the finest backdrop in all of sports as the fiery sunset paints its way across the sky during halftime and into the third quarter.

As for the actual action, I will go to the grave saying that game wasn’t as bad as some people thought it was. 31-7 at halftime is a hard thing to get around, but if you ask me, winning the 2nd half by a 21-7 margin of our own showed that this wasn’t some wildly uneven matchup.  And if only even two plays were different in that first half — Maybin’s strip sack early in the 1st quarter that was waved off because he lined up off sides, and Stephfon Green’s unfortunate fumble after an explosive screen pass catch-and-run in the waning minutes of the 2nd quarter — it really could’ve been a whole different ballgame. But that’s the way this game often works. It comes down to those oh-so-closes and what-could-have-beens.

I’ll go to the grave saying, too, that it always felt like the 2008 team was one of the single most underrated teams of recent Penn State history. No, it didn’t have the luster of the 2005 squad, the off-season trauma/drama that 2011 and 2012 teams weathered, or the sheer unexpectedness of this 2016 crew, but lest we forget that that ’08 squad was one bloody Iowa field goal away from going undefeated and playing for a National Championship.  And maybe that’s why the loss that day in Pasadena stung so horribly much: it just didn’t feel like the proper end for one of most talented teams in Penn State history.

*   *   *

For the next four seasons, I had it in my head that we would get back to Pasadena one day. I believed in it so strongly that I even incorporated my vision of it into a stanza of a prayer-poem I delivered aloud to the team before the Minnesota game in 2009: And no disrespect to Dr. King / But this dream came from the King of Kings / And smelled of gentle California Roses / Heaven-sent to each of us here personally.

But sometimes, hope and pray as you want, things just don’t work out the way you’d like them to. Alas, my time ran out before I could ever get back to Pasadena as a player. It was CapitalOne in ‘09, Outback in ’10, and TicketCity in ’11. But perhaps the cruelest irony of all was that, if it weren’t for a slew of notorious sanctions that made us ineligible for postseason play in 2012, my fifth and final year on the team, our win over Wisconsin in the final game of the ‘12 season would have granted us a spot in the Big Ten title game the following week, as Ohio State, the only team ahead of us in our division standings, was also ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. And as all of you well know, a win in the Big Ten title game has a pretty solid chance of landing you in— you guessed it — Pasadena.

What pains me almost as much was being able to get there this time, to see it in-person and not in shoulder pads but a polo shirt and Nikes with no cleats. Writing this was some sort of a cathartic exercise, I told a friend, a way to soothe all the memories and emotions that will surely come with watching the game on TV back home in Ebensburg.

But the truth is that I’ll be there in spirit somewhere — standing, fidgeting, nervously swaying, joyously jumping, etc. — from the opening kickoff to the final play of the game. And after it’s over, after the clock hits triple zeroes and the whole wild ride of the 2016 season has concluded and it’s time to exit those gates, I hope that all you Penn Staters fortunate enough to be in that stadium will have the chance to walk outside, across the parking plot plains, look back one last time at that iconic neon-lit sign, and whisper out into the California night—

We got back, man.  We got back.

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